Scriptures

Matthew 23

Introduction

‘Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.’ Matthew 23:1-4

A Warning Against Hypocrisy

Jesus speaks to the crowds and the disciples and tells them that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, that is, they enjoy the position of authority and were supposed to teach the law according to Moses. They sat there but they didn’t have any authority and they certainly didn’t practise what they preached.

They didn’t lead by example but rather led by command, Mark 10:35-45. Interestingly, Jesus tells the people to do whatever they tell them but don’t do what they do, this again implies they didn’t practise what they preached.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisee’s ideas of religion and their traditions became very heavy, Acts 15:10, that is, they made it almost impossible for people to obey their legalistic traditions, Mark 7:1-9.

Their hypocrisy was that they didn’t preach ‘justice, mercy and faith,’ Matthew 23:23. They kept binding non-essential burdens on the people that couldn’t be perfectly obeyed in order to accomplish justification before God, Romans 3:20 / Galatians 2:16.

‘Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.’ Matthew 23:5-7

Everything they did was only for public show, 3 John 9-10. They make their phylacteries wide, phylacteries were small leather boxes that contained Scriptures.

Coffman, in his commentary, says the following.

‘In Exodus 13:16 / Deuteronomy 6:8 / Deuteronomy 11:18, it was said to Israel concerning the teachings of the law, that they should be bound, ‘for a token upon thy head, and for frontlets between thine eyes’. In the inter-biblical period, we find the Jews converting this figure into outward fact. They took four passages adjacent to the thrice-repeated injunction, namely, Exodus 13:2-10 / Exodus 13:11-17 / Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Deuteronomy 11:13-22, and writing them on strips of parchment, encased the folded strips in minute leather boxes. These four boxes were set on edge and fastened upon one leather base, which was placed in the middle of the forehead, and held there by a string tied round the head with peculiar knots which had a mystical meaning.’

‘Borders of the garments were considered sacred by the Jews, and the enlargement of the border was another device for ostentation and gratification of the pride of its wearer.’

We also read of how much they loved their authority, as they loved to sit in places of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogue.

This was all about the show, ‘look how important we are!’ We can almost imagine them becoming upset with people if no one greeted them at the marketplace or even took the time to call them ‘Rabbi’, which means teacher. Oh, how they loved to be seen by people, sit in positions of authority and liked to have a title.

Barnes, in his commentary, says the following, concerning the word ‘Rabbi’.

‘This word literally signifies great. It was a title given to eminent teachers of the law among the Jews, a title of honour and dignity, denoting authority and ability to teach. They were gratified with such titles and wished it given to themselves as denoting superiority. Every time it was given to them it implied their superiority to the persons who used it, and they were fond, therefore, of hearing it often applied to them. There were three titles in use among the Jews, Rab, Rabbi, and Rabban, denoting different degrees of learning and ability, as literary degrees do among us.’

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Matthew 23:8-12

Jesus here turns, and speaks to His disciples and tells them three things they were not to do.

1. Do not be called ‘Rabbi’.

They weren’t to receive such a title of distinction. Jesus says the reason for not doing so was simply He was their Teacher and all the disciples were equal, that is, they were equal in authority.

2. Do not call anyone on earth ‘father’.

This obviously doesn’t apply to calling our physical fathers, father. The word used here implies someone with authority, someone who is superior and has the right to command.

The reason Jesus gives is because they have one Father, who is in heaven, Matthew 6:9-13, He is the One with all authority, He is superior and He certainly has the right to command.

3. Do not be called ‘instructors’.

The word instructor implies a teacher, someone who was considered a leader in Bible times because of their position, James 3:1. The word refers to those who go before others, those who claim the right to direct and control others. The reason Jesus gives for this is simply because they have an instructor, the Messiah, Jesus Himself.

Notice how Jesus tells them the greatest among them will be their servant, Matthew 20:26. They don’t need any titles, they just need an attitude which is willing to serve others, Mark 10:43-44.

Leadership doesn’t begin at the top, it begins at the bottom, it begins by serving others and putting their needs first, Philippians 2:4.

Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, that is, brought down, but whoever humbles themselves will be exalted, that is, raised up. It’s always wise to humble ourselves, otherwise, God will do it for us, Luke 14:11 / James 4:10.

Smith, in his commentary, says the following.

‘Now having declared that to His disciples, these are the rules for His disciples. He now turns and addresses Himself to these scribes and the Pharisees. And He has an eightfold denunciation against them, pronouncing an eightfold woe. To my disciples, don’t follow their example. They say, but they don’t do. They exalt themselves. They draw attention to themselves. They love to be exalted and elevated above people, but you are brothers. If you’re going to be the chief, be the servant. Humble yourself and God will exalt you. But exalt yourself and God will abase you.’

The First Woe

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.’ Matthew 23:13

In Matthew 23:13-36 we find some of the fiercest words ever spoken by Jesus, the text contains which is commonly called, ‘The Seven Woes.’

The seven woes are judgements against the so-called spiritual leaders of the time who failed in their leadership roles and responsibilities. I’m sure as we go through this study we will learn from the many mistakes that these ‘spiritual leaders’ continued to make, at least I pray we do.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were ‘hypocrites’, in other words, they were stage actors under an assumed character, they pretended to be someone or something, they weren’t.

The teachers of the law were scribes who caused a whole load of trouble for others because of the way they interpreted the Law, there were much like our politicians of today, always debating with others, always debating among themselves. Much like some Christians today, they believed that they were the only ones who correctly interpreted the Scriptures.

As hard as it is to believe, these religious ‘hard-liners’ got a lot of respect from the people because of the great responsibility they had for sticking to the letter of law and its interpretations.

They also got a lot of respect because most of them were members of the Sanhedrin, Matthew 22:35 / Mark 14:43 / Mark 14:53 / Luke 22:66 / Acts 4:5.

Their main problem was they were so obsessed with the details of the Law, they missed the simplicity of the Law, Matthew 23:23, they got to the stage where they demanded that their interpretation was right, their opinion carried more weight than anyone else’s opinion and it got to the point where the joy was just sucked out of the people who simply wanted to serve God.

The teachers of the law, along with the Pharisees should have recognised Christ as the Messiah, they should have freely accepted Him as the Son of God, but they didn’t, they did the opposite, they hated Him, they rejected Him and done everything within their power to get rid of Him.

But what they were guiltier of was turning the people against Jesus, instead of turning the people towards Jesus and it’s in this way they were ‘shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven’.

We could say they were the ‘spiritual bouncers’ who were closing the door in people’s faces. Honest, sincere people who wanted to serve God and do His will were being prevented from entering in.

Imagine being told that if you go through a certain door, you will witness the most beautiful place you’ve ever been, you’ll experience the most wonderful things you’ve ever had!

But as you approach the door, the ‘spiritual bouncers’ are present, and you ask them, what it’s like inside and they say, ‘we don’t know we’ve never been inside’.

This is what Jesus is saying, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees are stopping people from entering the kingdom of God but they themselves have never been inside.

It’s’ obvious that anyone who truly has entered the kingdom of God and seen its beauty and experienced the love of God would never stop people from entering but encourage people to enter. There’s no sitting on the fence here, people are either for Christ or against Him.

The Second Woe

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and make long prayers just for show. This is why you will receive a harsher punishment.’ Matthew 23:14

I’m sure I don’t need to point out that not all translations have this verse included in the text, this isn’t a problem though because the actual text itself is in perfect harmony with other texts of Jesus when He speaks to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, Mark 12:40 / Luke 20:47.

No one knows how they went about ‘devouring widow’s houses’, but maybe when we think of the parable which Jesus taught about ‘Unjust Judge’ in Luke 18:1-8 we can get a glimpse of what they were doing.

Maybe they were charging a huge amount of money when some widows were seeking justice, maybe they abused the widow’s hospitability and took advantage of their kind generosity, Mark 12:41-44.

There’s nothing more impressive in some people’s eyes than a long-winded prayer, even today this still happens where Christians treat a prayer like a sermon and they remind God of what He wrote in His Word.

This was all for the show, Matthew 5:5, was about impressing the people around them, ‘look how spiritual I am, look how connected to God I am!’

Because of their hypocrisy, Jesus tells them they will be judged and punished with a harsher punishment, why? As ‘God’s spiritual leaders’, they should have known better, they were full of arrogance, and pride, and they pretended to be something they weren’t.

And if this isn’t a lesson for the churches’ spiritual leaders today, I don’t know what is. We need to be careful that opinion and tradition don’t become law, 1 Corinthians 4:6, we need to be careful how we treat the venerable among us, James 1:27, and more importantly, we should pretend to be something we’re not.

The Third Woe

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. ‘Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.’ Matthew 23:15-22

There’s no mistaking the point here, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were going everywhere not to win people over to God but to win people over to their traditions and interpretations of the law.

They wanted to convert people to their word instead of God’s Word. In Bible times there were two kinds of converts, there were those who were circumcised and accepted only parts of Judaism and then there were those who were coverts to righteousness and became true converts, Matthew 8:5.

We must remember that there was nothing wrong with someone converting to Judaism, the problem was they were converting people to their way of thinking about what the law actually says, in other words, it was all about converting people to the traditions of the fathers, Mark 7:6-9 / Acts 26:5.

By the time Jesus came on the scene, it was no longer about God’s laws but about the traditions and this is what they were converting the Gentiles to, they converted them to a bunch of rules and regulations.

No wonder Jesus rebukes them and tells them that they, ‘make coverts twice as much a child of hell as they are.’ In other words, Jesus is telling them they are children of the devil because their religion isn’t God’s religion.

Their whole theology was off base and so Jesus points out just how off base they really are. He calls them ‘blind guides’ and ‘blind fools’, why?

They believed that a person’s oath was binding if he swore by the gold of the temple or gift at the altar, the problem was that they actually taught the people that if a person swore by the temple or altar, then that oath wasn’t binding, no wonder they are hypocrites.

I Can’t See The Forest For The Trees!

Someone once said, ‘I can’t see the forest for the trees’, the scribes and Pharisees were much like that when it came to the temple and its contents.

The temple is much greater than the gold ornaments within it and the altar is of more significance than the sacrificial gifts laid upon it. In their theology they had this back to front, they thought that the gold was more important than the temple and the gifts were more important than the altar.

In other words, their priorities were all wrong. When we lose focus on what really matters, we end up debating amongst ourselves over matters of opinion, opinions are good and healthy, but they must never become law, and we must strive to separate the two.

Example

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, that’s a fact but why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Whatever the reason for him coming at has to be an opinion because the Bible doesn’t tell us.

The Fourth Woe

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.’ Mathew 23:23-24

Notice that Jesus says that giving a tenth of their spices was right, the problem was these religious leaders were only emphasising on the giving because they were living off the contributions of the people. And so, in doing so, they totally neglected the more important matters of the law like justice, mercy and faithfulness.

This was all about the outward appearance of religion and nothing to do with being holy within our hearts. I guess if they focused so much on their outward appearance, they wouldn’t have to deal with the conditions of their own hearts.

Jesus is basically saying that there are some aspects of the law which are more important than others, justice, mercy and faithfulness are more important in the law than tithing mint, dill and cumin.

They shouldn’t have emphasised the lesser principles of the law in order to neglect the more important principles of the law, remember David! Matthew 12:1-8 / 1 Samuel 21:1-6 / Leviticus 24:5-9.

By the time Jesus came on the scene if the Jews found any kind of small insect in a glass of milk or water, it would have been filtered out and here Jesus contrasts this with the picture of straining a gnat out of a glass of water with swallowing a camel.

This is probably foreign to us today because when we find any kind of insect in our drinks we would probably throw the entire contents of the glass out, but in the days when milk was expensive, we can understand why they would just remove the insect and carry on drinking.

The Fifth Woe

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.’ Matthew 23:25-26

Once again, we see that they focused a lot on their ceremonial washing of cups and dishes, Mark 7:1-9 and here Jesus points out their hypocrisy.

He tells them that they were greedy because they are extorting from the people what they actually put in those containers and in doing so they became self-indulgence.

The point is clear again, the ceremonial purification of the cups and dishes was more important to them than how they acquired the contents in the first place.

In other words, even though they sinfully obtained and ate the contents, they thought they could still be justified because they cleaned the cups and dishes.

The Pharisees did this kind of thing over and over again, they robbed widows and orphans, dealt deceitfully, defrauded in money-changing, and dishonoured moral precepts of the Law.

The Sixth Woe

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but, on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’ Matthew 23:27-28

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees liked to keep their tombs in order and look good to the eye and here Jesus uses this practice to show their hypocrisy.

They whitewashed graves in order to make them more easily visible and to prevent people from stepping on one of them accidentally or unknowingly.

On the outside, they appeared to be righteous because of their ‘religious’ behaviour, but inwardly their hearts were full of hypocrisy. Although they thought they thought they were alive, Jesus tells them they were very much dead, they were dead spiritually and morally.

The Seventh Woe

‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.’ And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So, you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!’ Matthew 23:29-32

In the seventh and final woe, we find Jesus calling them hypocrites once again, I’m sure this must have enraged them by this time and I’m sure the plot to kill Jesus was already underway, in fact, it’s less than a week away they would eventually have their way and have Him crucified.

Here Jesus continues with the theme of tombs, they were building beautiful tombs and wonderfully decorated graves. The problem was they were doing all this as if they were showing a lot of respect for the righteous prophets of God but at the same time they were claiming to be superior to those dead prophets, this is shown because they murdered them, Matthew 21:33-41. They were at the point of no return.

‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.’ Matthew 23:33-34

Jesus calls them ‘snakes and vipers’, this is metaphorical, but don’t miss the point, snakes and vipers were the most detestable creatures which roamed the ground, some of which were full of poison. Jesus tells them they won’t escape being condemned to hell which is the place of eternal punishment.

Notice that Jesus says He’s ‘sending them prophets and sages and teachers,’ the KJV says, these are prophets, wise men and scribes., they were the ones who would be killed, crucified, flogged and chased all over the place.

We only have to turn to the Book of Acts for to this be fulfilled, we read about Stephen being stoned to death, Acts 7:54-60. We read about the apostles being flogged and put in prison, Acts 12:4-5 / Acts 16:22-24. I’m sure when Jesus mentioned that word, ‘crucify’, they would be thinking that that’s what they plan to do to Him.

‘And so, upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.’ Matthew 23:35

Now we know all about the account of Cain murdering his brother Abel, Genesis 4:8 and we have an account of the death of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21 but we have no record of the murdering of ‘Zechariah the son of Berekiah’.

Whatever and whosever Jesus is referring to here seems to indicate that they themselves, that is, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were responsible for murdering him.

Just because we have no record of this event doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, Matthew 26:1-4, Jesus said it did and He openly said it happened when they were around, in their lifetime and openly blamed them for it.

It’s as though Jesus started from the first murder, Abel, and went straight to the last murder, Zechariah, before He Himself was to be murdered by them.

As I mentioned earlier the teachers of the law and the Pharisees outwardly showed great respect for God’s prophets who stood up for righteousness, but inwardly they were murderers.

In fact, even as they were listening to Jesus they were plotting to murder Him. Remember it wasn’t the Romans who were against Jesus, it was these self-righteous leaders.

‘Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.’ Matthew 23:36

There’s no mistaking what Jesus is saying here, the whole Jewish nation was going to be held accountable, and as we know destruction came upon Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed and so the Jewish nation along with its religion, came to an end in A.D. 70, Matthew 24:1-35.

Someone once said, ‘the church is full of hypocrites, but there’s always room for one more’. I understand what they’re trying to say here, in terms of there being no one ‘perfect’ within the Lord’s church.

The problem with that phrase is that almost implies that hypocrisy is accepted within the Lord’s church, but after reading Jesus’ word here in Mathew 22, we know this clearly isn’t the case.

The Bible is full of warnings about living a double life, and we’re told over and over again that we must practice what we preach.

If people are to see Jesus in us, Galatians 2:20, and our lives are to reflect His glory, 2 Corinthians 3:16-18, and our lives are to display the fruit of the Spirit, Galatians 5:22-23, then we have to come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no room for a hypocrite in the Lord’s church.

I’m not saying everyone should be ‘perfect’ but what I am saying is that we all should be striving to do our best, to live right for God.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Matthew 23:37-39

Morgan, in his commentary, says the following.

‘Here, indeed, if ever, we have thoughts that breathe and burn. One can almost feel the withering force of his strong and mighty indignation, indignation directed, not against the people, but against their false guides. And yet behind it, all is his heart, and the woes merge into a wail of agony, the cry of a mother over her lost child.’

Jesus looks to the future of Jerusalem and sees its destruction which was coming at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70. They had killed God’s prophets and stoned them too, Matthew 5:12 / Hebrews 11:32-40. God had longed to gather His children as a hen gathers her chicks, what a beautiful picture of love and protection this is.

Smith, in his commentary, says the following.

‘Despite all that, they had done Jesus said, ‘Look, I’d still love to gather your children together’. The love that God had, had not diminished. He still loved them. But it was they who refused. It wasn’t that the opportunity wasn’t there, it wasn’t that God was not merciful and forgiving, it wasn’t that God wouldn’t do it still for them, but they would not.’

Because of their unwillingness to accept Jesus, Jesus says, ‘your house is left desolate’. Notice He uses the word ‘your’, it had become their house, not Gods.

In other words, God’s house, the temple, had become desolate, that is, a symbol of everything opposite to God, 1 Kings 9:1ff / Jeremiah 12:7 / Jeremiah 22:5.

Plummer, in his commentary, says the following.

‘These sorrowful words of warning are the Messiah’s farewell to his people. He never again taught in public, and perhaps he never again entered the temple. It was perhaps only a few hours after uttering these woes upon the teachers, and this lamentation over the inhabitants of Jerusalem, that the Sanhedrin met to consider how they might destroy him who had uttered them. That was their answer to his condemnation of their past and his warnings respecting their future.’

Jesus tells them they will not see Him again, Matthew 21:9 / Psalm 118:26, until they ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

Smith, in his commentary, says the following.

‘You won’t see me until the persecution is so heavy, the tribulation so great that you’ll be saying, ‘Oh, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ And they’ll be crying out and praying for Him before He returns.’

Barnes, in his commentary, says the following.

‘The day of your mercy is gone by. I have offered you protection and salvation, and you have rejected it. You are about to crucify me, and your temple to be destroyed, and you, as a nation, to be given up to long and dreadful suffering. You will not see me as a merciful Saviour, offering you redemption anymore, until you have borne these heavy judgments. They must come upon you, and be borne, until you would be glad to hail a deliverer, and say, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.’

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